A modern version of 1960s supper clubs, pop-up restaurants have gained popularity recently. Pop-ups are temporary restaurants that are often held in unconventional locations. What’s not to love? The fleeting nature of pop-ups offer a truly unique experience, and it gives newer chefs a chance to showcase their skills, or established chefs to try out new ideas. It’s a win-win for any food enthusiast.
Pop-ups can be intimidating, though. A recent study by Eventbrite found that diners who frequent these temporary restaurants tend to be “leaders and influencers” in their social circles, and eat out at high-profile restaurants often.
Curious diners shouldn’t be scared away, however. Here’s a short tutorial on how to behave (or not) at one of these special experiences.
Know what you’re getting into.
Do a little research before buying a ticket. Some are modeled after the secretive supper club model, others are a chance to let local chefs experiment with new menus and flavors. Most pop-ups don’t offer a la carte menus, so you’ll have the best experience if you pick a pop-up that works for you. Is there a theme to the meal? Is it vegetarian friendly? These are some good questions to get you started.
Reserve ahead of time.
Major pop-ups book fast, and almost all of them require you to pre-pay by purchasing a ticket online. Here in Seattle, it’s common for popular experiences like Cow by Bear to book out months in advance—it’s almost as hard as getting tickets to “Hamilton.”
Be prepared to get social.
While some pop-ups are hosted as special events inside permanent, brick-and-mortar restaurants, many use unconventional spaces and opt for smaller, more intimate groups. Imagine about 25 people at family-style tables, which is a great way to meet new people.
Tell the restaurant about any dietary restrictions when you book.
Pop-ups are better able to accommodate allergies and dietary restrictions if you tell them in advance. Because likely you’re eating off of a prix-fixe menu, they can make sure you have the best experience with a little warning. Be reasonable though—if you’re allergic to citrus, a pop-up like Surrell’s All Citrus Dinner may not be your best bet.
Be a little adventurous.
Pop-ups are one of the best ways to try new things. By no means should you feel pressured to eat everything served, but you might end up pleasantly surprised.
Feel like you have to eat everything, just because it’s on your plate.
It’s good to get out of your comfort zone, but there’s no shame in leaving that bone marrow on the plate if you’re uncomfortable. Just stay positive and respectful, then move onto the next part of your dish. There’s no judgment here.
Expect to bring a big group to a sit-down service on short notice.
Different pop-ups have different capacities, since they’re all unique. Each pop-up will have a cap, and some are strictly parties of two. Some have space for around 20, like certain offerings from Addo in Seattle. If you want all those spots, though, (or at least a majority of them) be prepared to book much further in advance.
Show up late.
This is really best practice for any restaurant that takes reservations, whether a pop-up or a traditional venue. Everyone knows what it’s like to be stuck in traffic, or have something urgent come up last-minute, but staying on schedule helps the restaurant run efficiently and provide the best experience for all guests. The same way a theater performance won’t wait for you, you might just have to accept that you’ll be missing the first course if you’re attending a more exhibition-focused dinner event and running seriously late. This isn’t important for walk-in shops like Side Hustle, which serves coffee and donuts inside a local brewery.
If you bought a ticket reserving a spot, make sure you remember to bring it with you (or make sure to charge your phone if you’re planning on showing them digitally). If it’s a walk-in spot, are they cash only? It only takes a minute before you go to click print or check their website for any rules, and this way, you won’t be scrambling once you get to the door.
Dismiss pop-ups that don’t feature “celebrity” names.
One of the great things about pop-ups is that it offers talented, up-and-coming chefs a platform to show off their skills. Chef Mei Lin, who won Season 12 of Bravo’s hit show “Top Chef,” said, “I worked at someone else’s restaurant for so long; you’re doing their food. No one knows what food I’m doing other than what they’ve seen on TV. Pop-ups are a way to let people taste and experience your food.”
Check out some of our favorite pop-ups, both local and out of town, in the gallery below. For more Seattle pop-up restaurants, Eater Seattle regularly updates this article as things appear and disappear.
Click on any of the images to learn more about that pop-up.
Cow by Bear began in San Diego with an anonymous chef that simply goes by the name, “Bear.” Originally hosted in his apartment in 2011, Cow by Bear is now a one of the most sought out pop-ups to hit Seattle in various secret locations.
Surrell's Pop-up appears in various locations, and Chef Aaron Tekulve showcases his take on Modern American Cuisine using the very best Pacific Northwest products.
Side Hustle is hosted a few days a week at Lowercase Brewing in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. They serve cold-brew coffee and small-batch, mini-doughnuts made with spent-grains from Lowercase beers.
Farm to Forks, located in San Francisco serves top notch food with the goal of teaching diners about the ecological and cultural interplay of food production.
Oxalis is a pop-up on New York's Lower East Side. Oxalis is a common plant, and the cuisine celebrates the beauty in simplicity as well as highlights seasonal ingredients.